Labour's top brass need to show more ambition

The Labour Party's apathetic attitude to the position of general secretary is indicative of a wider

Yesterday morning's scoop by Dan Hodges on Chris Lennie becoming the next General Secretary of the Labour party has sent the blogosphere a flutter. Labour List editor, Mark Ferguson, has argued that a more transparent selection process is necessary. Johanna Baxter has called for the National Executive Committee, of which she is an elected member, to make the decision on the basis of merit. And outgoing Fabian General Secretary, Sunder Katwala, has detailed why the decision will be a test case for the more open approach that Ed Miliband called for in Wales on Saturday. But the most depressing part of Dan Hodges piece is the view expressed by one party official that: "Chris [Lennie] is coming in with one brief and one brief only. Cut costs and sort out the finances. That's it."

If this is true, it shows a remarkable lack of ambition from Labour's top brass on the role of the General Secretary. Sorting the party's finances is absolutely critical but so too is reengaging the party with the public, the subject of Ed's speech on Saturday. As Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times, political parties "must loosen up or lose out".

Without an advocate in Victoria Street for the "cultural glasnost" that Nick Anstead and I called for in our 2009 Fabian pamphlet, "The Change We Need", Labour will fail to consolidate its recent increase in membership or roll out the best practice in grassroots campaigning which has been seen in a handful of local parties. There are a lot of good ideas bubbling around Labour's grassroots. The Labour Values website documents terrific examples of activist recruitment in Birmingham Edgbaston, community meetings in Blackburn, and effecting canvassing techniques in Bethnal Green and Bow among many others. But this best practice will be lost if the party does not make its roll out to the rest of the country an explicit goal of the party (and therefore of the General Secretary). Indeed, many of the reforms that Ed himself advocates are likely to be lost without someone at the top of the organisation devoted to their implementation.

But even if the cutting of costs and sorting of finances was the only role expected of the next General Secretary it would make little sense to limit the field to a veteran of Victoria Street. The Labour party has struggled with its fundraising since the cash for honours incident. High value donors had been falling away long before some disappeared in protest at Ed Miliband's election, the 1000 club (composed of donors making £1000 contributions per year) is understaffed and therefore not maximising its potential to raise cash, much of the party's additional short money has been wasted on two special advisors for each shadow cabinet member, and the effort to raise cash through online appeals from the grassroots has suffered from a degree of flat footedness especially since the general election. In all of these areas, there is much that can be learned from the charitable sector, from online campaigns, and from the US. Chris Lennie may the best candidate for the job but why narrow the field at this stage?

Important though it was for Miliband to call on Saturday for Labour party conference to be "legitimate in the way its decisions are made", it will be worth nothing if other decisions of critical importance are made behind closed doors. In addition to Mark Ferguson's important list of questions for the party and its leadership, the membership and public have a right to know the criteria for the selection of General Secretary and the composition of the short-listing panel. After going back on his support for an elected Party Chair and doing little to advance the cause of primaries that he used to endorse, Ed Miliband is on shaky ground as someone committed to modernising the party. He needs to act quickly to show that his words on Saturday were worth something.

Will Straw co-edited with Nick Anstead the Fabian Society pamphlet, "The change we need: what Britain can learn from Obama's victory". He writes here in a personal capacity.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war